Last year, a darkly comedic take on the inner workings of reality TV bulldozed its way into the forefront of pop culture, becoming a huge hit for Lifetime in the process. With no zombies, vampires or thrones in sight, it’s no small feat that UnREAL became one of cable TV’s most talked-about shows. And it’s always been clear that Constance Zimmer has had much to do with its success. Her portrayal of cutthroat TV exec Quinn King made us wince, cover our eyes and peak gleefully through our fingers to see who she’d put the screws to next. With award nominations, magazine covers and all eyes on her this year, Paste was lucky enough to catch up with Zimmer to talk about expectations for the new season, finding comedy in cruelty and pushing the envelope even further this year.
Paste Magazine: Let’s go back to over a year ago, right before UnREAL’s series premiere. At that point, was there a concern about how the public was going to take to this?
Constance Zimmer: Oh yeah, we were terrified. We really had no idea what people were going to think, if people were going to watch it, if people were going to get it, if people were going to care. There were so many emotions that were going through all of our brains.
Paste: Now fast forward to today and it’s obviously a very different scenario. Viewers and critics fell in love with the show, and the buzz has grown stronger between this season and last. Is it less stressful for you now that you know people are on board with the craziness?
Zimmer: Well, it’s definitely a different kind of stress, because obviously we’ve been completely overwhelmed with excitement about how well it did. Especially critically and now with it being on Hulu, it’s been fun because the show has really felt like it’s been a slow burn. The fact is that we haven’t been on the air on Lifetime for almost a year, but it’s been kept alive because we were on Hulu, which I think was so smart of the network to do. It brought us the audience that might not have originally gone to Lifetime for this kind of show. Now, the different stress is that we just want it to be good again.
Before we were just like, “Oh, is anyone going to watch it?” And now we feel like, now we know people are going to watch it, so we just have to make sure that the characters still give the audience what they loved so much about the first season.
Paste: Since the world fully embraced your show’s darker tone, do you feel like there was pressure to push it even further in that direction this season?
Zimmer: We feel like we have a little bit more freedom to not be as scared to go darker and to maybe expose more. In the first season, I think we wanted to make sure that people were going to get it, and love how dark it was, and love that it kind of digs really deep into different people’s psychology and into women and men and power struggles. Everybody was vying for power and everybody was vying for love. I think this season we definitely allowed ourselves to just be okay with going darker, and kind of thinking and hoping that everybody wants to go that dark with us.
Paste: Your character Quinn is a great one in a long line of selfish, morally-corrupt characters that viewers grow to love and empathize with, regardless of their actions. Is that a tough balance to achieve?
Zimmer: For sure, but I also don’t know how aware of it I am when I’m doing it. I was scared of Quinn the first season. I just thought everybody was going to hate me and think that Quinn was so mean. And what I had to do was just commit to the fact that she’s a person doing a job, searching for love, struggling with balance in her life. Her career is her life, and there’s this love story between Quinn and Rachel—how it’s completely co-dependent and almost more of a love story than the other one she has, which is the one between her and Chet.
I was so pleasantly surprised and excited that I could create a character that I was just trying to keep grounded and keep real in her struggles. I just hoped and prayed that people were going to also be able to see her insecurities and her inner conflict, and not care about her being likable so much. You can see yourself in, maybe not everything she does, or definitely not all of the choices that she makes, but in one or two or three, whether it was you, or someone you knew or someone you met on the street. I’ve just been so absolutely excited and floored by how much people have taken to Quinn.
By the way, I didn’t even realize Quinn was funny. I had no idea when I was watching the first season, I was like “Oh my god, I had no idea that would play as funny” because when I was doing it, I thought it was incredibly mean. This season, that allowed me, to be okay with all of that and understand that maybe there’s a part of me that allows people to laugh in a show that is super, super dark. You laugh almost out of being uncomfortable. You want to break from the darkness of it.
Paste: In a way, Quinn could be looked at as a similar character to Ari Gold from your former show, Entourage. The meaner you are, the more we like watching you.
Zimmer: Yeah, I have to admit in that first season, my idea was Quinn was Anna Wintour meets Ari Gold. That was what I thought, and it’s true… isn’t it crazy? It’s because these characters say the things that I think we all wish we could say, but we would never get away with, and that’s where I think the comedy comes from. This, “Oh my God, I cannot believe you just said that.” Also, I have to live in a world and I have to believe that Quinn is right, because if I don’t, then it can come off as something very condescending as opposed to just genuine.
Paste: You mentioned before that the real love story of the show i between Quinn and Rachel, two women with very different approaches but the same powerful career aspirations. Do you see this as almost a tragic love story… two people who really compliment each other and need each other but can’t coexist and work together just because of the nature of who they are?
Zimmer: Yeah, it’s definitely tragic, because they’re both so strong and so smart and so flawed. It’s almost like, “Who’s the strongest? Who’s the most flawed and where does it get you?”
The whole first season, they’re at odds, and I think they realized that when they both land where they think they want to be, it doesn’t mean anything because they don’t have each other. It’s weird and the only good news is that they come together again in the end, which I was very happy about because I didn’t like not being a team with her. I was like, “Ugh, it doesn’t feel right.”
Paste: Since Season One hit, you’ve undoubtedly been privy to a great deal of audience feedback. From what you can tell, is UnREAL shocking viewers with its depiction of what goes on behind the scenes of reality TV, or is it simply reinforcing what they already suspected?
Zimmer: I think it’s both. I think there’s a lot of people that watch reality television and thought that it was really real, that they were capturing moments of people’s lives as they were happening. Then there is the other audience that watches it and knows that it’s been manipulated and knows that situations are heightened and exist because somebody throws something in there. I definitely think because we are an exaggerated version of the truth, we’re leaving it up to the interpretation of the audience to really believe now—”Wow, is it really that dark? How dark is it?”
It’s just like House of Cards, where you go behind the scenes of politics and you can talk to politicians and they’ll say, “We’re even darker than what you’re portraying on House of Cards,” and you just can’t even believe it. We’ve had so many people in reality television come up to us any time we’re anywhere and just say, “You guys should just call this show Real, because it’s that close to home.” We’re like, “Oh God, we just don’t want to know that!” I like pretending that we’re kind of living in this heightened reality behind reality television.
Paste: One of the biggest issues with today’s entertainment world is that there is a lack of quality roles and opportunities for women beyond their 20s and 30s. Quinn certainly flies right in the face of that issue, and your show’s success is a strong indicator of how accepting today’s audiences are to this type of role. Do you take pride in that?
Zimmer: Yes, yes and yes. I think any time I’ve been given an opportunity to play incredible, strong women, it just feels like it gets better and better. And there’s more opportunity in television, I would say, specifically. The amount of strong female characters in television these days has definitely doubled, if not tripled. I mean we have two of them on UnREAL.
I would hope that this will continue because it did seem to be having an effect even before UnREAL was on the air. You had Nurse Jackie and Scandal and all of these shows that have incredibly strong female roles. American Horror Story, even. I think the rarity of our show is that there’s two of us and we’re charging the brigade in super dark, determined ways and people love it. I think both male and female viewers are like, “Yes, let’s have more of it.”
Season Two of UnReal premieres tonight at 10 pm EST on Lifetime.